A year after he deposed Egypt’s first freely elected president only to take his place, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi presides over a country roiled by militancy and ever-shrinking liberties, critics say. On July 3 last year, the army, then led by Sisi, removed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi from office after millions took to the streets demanding his resignation.
Sisi went on to win May’s presidential election, partly thanks to his image as a strongman who can restore stability to a country in tumult since an uprising toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But the lead-up to the anniversary suggests the divisive ouster of Morsi still looms large over Sisi, who won the election with 97 percent of the vote against a weak leftist candidate. On Monday, two policemen were killed defusing bombs outside Sisi’s palace, with the president pledging “retribution”. A few days before, a court prolonged the detention of 24 secular activists jailed for violating a ban on all but police-sanctioned protests. Some of these activists had supported Sisi when he ousted Morsi, but a crackdown on Islamists has since extended to other dissidents.
Morsi’s overthrow unleashed the bloodiest period in Egypt’s modern history as a crackdown killed more than 1,400 of his supporters, jailed thousands including top Brotherhood leaders and sentenced about 200 to death. Militant attacks have since killed about 500 policemen and soldiers, says the government. “It’s really a dark time... We are seeing citizen killing citizen, brother killing brother, families being torn apart. It is not a civil war, but it is a civil conflict,” said Shadi Hamid, fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Saban Centre. “Egypt is very, very divided.”
The Brotherhood is facing its most daunting challenge since its inception in 1928, but the movement that swept all elections between the fall of Mubarak and Morsi is far from over, experts say. “Certainly Egypt has moved to a new chapter, but it’s unrealistic to think that the authorities have eliminated an 86-year-old organisation that is the largest political party in the country,” said Yezid Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center. The movement was blacklisted as a terrorist group in December after being blamed for a deadly bombing north of Cairo, a charge the Islamists denied.
With no signs of reconciliation shown by Sisi, the Brotherhood has the incentive to “play spoiler,” said Hamid. The Brotherhood insists it eschewed violence decades ago, but there are signs some of its members have begun targeting the police. Hamid, author of “Temptations of Power”, a book on Islamist movements, said there was a “growing openness (among supporters of the Brotherhood) in accepting certain low level acts against security personnel which is seen as defensive violence”.
The Cairo-based militant group Ajnad Misr — which the authorities claim to have defeated — said it planted the bombs that killed two police officers on Monday. “I pledge before God and their families, the state will get just and speedy retribution,” Sisi said, only hours after the palace blasts. Activists accuse the new authorities of wanting to counter the 2011 uprising that saw millions rally against Mubarak demanding “bread, freedom and social justice”.
“Today’s rule is worse than under Mubarak and Morsi put together,” said Amr Imam, a defence lawyer for anti-Mubarak activists being tried for violating the protest law. “The symbols of Mubarak’s regime are all out, the officers who killed protesters are free, while the revolutionaries who took part in the January 25 revolution are in jail.” Egypt’s political turmoil set off since Mubarak’s ouster was aggravated in November when the new authorities passed a law that prohibits unauthorised demonstrations.
Anti-Mubarak activists have been jailed for breaching the law, which Sisi supporter Chehab Waguih, spokesman for the liberal Free Egyptian party, said was adopted to “ensure stability and not restore a despotic regime”. Sisi has said his priority is to return Egypt to stability and help recover the shattered economy rather than encourage democratic reforms. Imam said: “Today, there is open oppression taking place under the guise of fighting terrorism and protecting Egyptian identity. “Yes, under Mubarak you had corruption... but at least people were not being killed on the streets with everybody treating it as something normal.”
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